EVERYTHING WAS GOODBYE by Gurjinder Basran

Book Quote:

“The sun struck his body at an angle that reduced him to a thin black shadow lined in molton gold and yet when he looked back at me I could make out his smile. It was electric. He motioned for me to follow, but I refused, preferring to sit on a nearby rock, the tide splashing against me as he rushed into the surf. Watching him disappear and reappear in the water, I squinted against the twinkling light that reflected off the water until my sight was infrared. ”

Book Review:

Review by Friederike Knabe  (OCT 3, 2011)

In her debut novel, Everything Was Good-Bye, Gurjinder Basran tells the story of one happy-unhappy family, seen through the eyes of Meena, the youngest of six sisters. Set against the backdrop of suburban British Columbia, Basran paints a richly coloured portrait of a close-knit Punjabi community, caught between the traditions of “home” in India and their Canadian home, where their community is surrounded by a predominantly white, rather laid-back English-speaking society. With an impressively confident approach to a complex subject matter and a lively and engaging writing style, the young Indian-Canadian author explores the emotional turmoil, faced by a girl/young woman like Meena, experiencing the two cultures intimately. Traditional family values are assessed against the young heroine’s need for independence and emotional fulfillment.

From a young age Meena is an astute observer of her surroundings, expressing her thoughts and feelings more easily to her private notebooks than to any one person. Her subdued, hard-working mother, a widow since Meena’s early childhood, appears to be in a state of permanent mourning. The traditional customs and rituals that sustain her physically and mentally, also provide her justification for her strict treatment of her daughters. Speaking little English herself, she insists on Punjabi spoken; she demands of her daughters the traditional obedient behaviour that makes them acceptable as future wives and her constant concern is to find “good” husbands for her daughters, meaning that they are somebody with a good income and, very important, a professional designation, such as a lawyer or a doctor. Love? That may come later, or not.

By the time we share Meena’s intimate musings on her life, all sisters, except one, have or are about to be married according to the traditions. Harj, her favourite sister, was expelled from the family after being falsely accused of misbehaving by one of the many “aunties.”

The aunties, a kind of informal morality police, assume the responsibility of monitoring the young people’s behaviour in public, reporting without delay, when they observe, for example, when a girl alone is talking to a boy. Meena and Harj used to make fun of these aunties, whether related or not, referring to them as the IIA – the Indian Intelligence Agency. With a few evocative sentences, Basran expressively captures the characteristics of different aunties and others in the community: some speak deliberate “Bombay British” (showing off), others are FOBS (Fresh Off the Boat) or DIPs (Dumb Indian Punjabs)… Her sense of humour and irony is conspicuous, revealing an attractive mix of intimate knowledge of and critical distance to such reality. For example, one so-called auntie, claims to visit India every year, “to look for the latest fashion”…”Our styles here,” she explains, “are a year behind.” Nonetheless, while India in her mind is “very progressive,” she prefers to “keep the customs and traditions of Hindustan, of our India” here in Canada. This somewhat twisted logic that may well contribute to undermining any adaptation of Punjabi customs to those of their chosen home country, creates fundamental problems for Meena.

While the young people are not allowed to voice an opinion at extended family gatherings, they realize that they are left with few options as regards balancing the old and the new. Some rebel and are expelled from the comfort and security of the community, others pay half-heartedly lip service and play the “obediency game” at a superficial level, yet, others submit and suffer quietly… Meena, watching her mother’s seemingly unending grief, but also her sisters’ marriages, is increasingly questioning the meaning of love, marriage and family:

“I hated the ritual of belated mourning. We existed between past dreams and present realities, never able to do anything but wait. For what, I didn’t know…”

In her other reality, that of school, university and later in professional life, Meena encounters much ignorance and insensitivity vis-à-vis her and her background. Being reticent herself, she cannot easily explain her life and is usually treated as an outsider. As can be expected, she finds it easier to open up, emotionally and intellectually, to young people, who, for whatever reasons, also feel like outcasts in their respective communities. Liam, one of her classmates, is one person, who can “pull her out of herself.”  Wandering the countryside and beaches around Vancouver, their developing friendship is touching in its innocence, fragility and complexity. Having to resort to secrets and lies at home, she feels pushed into a dual existence. And there is Kal, her gentle childhood friend…

Whether, over time, she can detach herself from the strictures of her traditional upbringing and how she will handle any future decisions for her life, moves the narrative forward in very affecting and, at times, surprising ways. As we accompany Meena’s exploration of a rainbow of emotions – from love, physical intimacy and happiness to loss and pain. Basran’s expressive language takes on additional lyrical qualities when she expresses her heroine’s deep feelings. In the end, what are family values? Can they adapt?

Not wanting to give any spoilers, suffice to say that I was captivated by Meenas’ voice in conveying her reality, her life between two worlds, the growth beyond victimhood. One could quibble over small details, such as lacking clarification of some Punjabi terms and, possibly, the brevity with an element of stereotyping when describing the non-Punjabi environment. Yet, these are not serious flaws. Basran, is without doubt a new author to watch. With Everything Was Good-Bye, Gurjinder Basran was a semi-finalist in Amazon’s 2008 Breakthrough Novel Award and the winner of the 2010 Search for the Great BC Novel.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 23 readers
PUBLISHER: Mother Tongue Publishing (October 2, 2010)
REVIEWER: Friederike Knabe
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Gurjinder Basran
EXTRAS: Interview on YouTube
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

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October 3, 2011 · Judi Clark · Comments Closed
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Canada, Class - Race - Gender, Debut Novel, World Lit, y Award Winning Author